Aboriginal kids in care

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Gino Iuliano Advocate

In Australia Aboriginal children and young people are in alternative care at almost nine times the rate of other children. The size of the over-representation and the consequences mean we should take a look at some of the specific issues surrounding Aboriginal kids in care.

Perhaps it is hard for non-Aboriginal people to completely understand and feel the impact of the powerful network of relationships that hold together traditional Aboriginal communities where brothers and sisters are indistinguishable from cousins, and uncles and aunts take on many of the roles and responsibilities of biological parents in European families. Even for me as an urban Kaurna man, the network of relationships, support and obligations is more complex and extensive even than in my family-oriented Italian heritage.

The removal from family of an Aboriginal child comes at a great cost no matter how necessary and justified. The tearing away from kin and country causes great anguish and sadness and, as we have seen with many from the stolen generations, lives marked by despair and self destruction. Keeping children out of care by intervening early and supporting birth families to care better is ideal but these services are not always provided.

In our legislation and in our practice we make a special effort to maintain family and cultural connections for Aboriginal kids but sometimes the nature of Aboriginal communities and the fostering relationship can present particular issues.

Finding foster or kinship care within the child’s community would seem the best solution but resentment by biological parents can cause friction in close communities or when groups come together for events such as funerals. Finding foster care outside of their immediate communities, even with Aboriginal families, can mean a major separation from the child’s extended family, country and culture. For these children we need to make a deliberate effort to maintain and rebuild these connections.

Much of the day to day commitment to maintaining cultural connections inevitably must come from foster carers who provide the 24/7 care. We ask much from our foster carers in this regard. We look for and encourage carers who will welcome children into their families and develop enduring loving relationships with them. At the same time we ask that they consciously and deliberately support a cultural maintenance process that requires considerable effort, can be upsetting to the child and ultimately may lead to the child deciding to discard them entirely.

Having the right sort of conversations with foster carers at the start of fostering can help. Carers’ understanding of the importance to Aboriginal children of kin and culture and of building a realistic picture of their birth family is important, as is a mature acceptance by carers of the sometimes transitory nature of fostering.

Government and non-government agencies have services and resources to help. In the Aboriginal Family Support Service’s (AFSS) Mirror Families Project, a specially trained worker engages with Aboriginal family networks to build practical support which enables kids to be cared for within their own communities, mirroring what an extended family would provide.

Relevant and attractive tools like the AFSS’s Lets Talk Culture and Liz Tongerie’s soon to be published Aboriginal Life Story Books make the job of engaging Aboriginal kids about their kin and culture easier for workers and carers alike.

Families SA is set to provide additional support and structure to the way in which the maintenance of Aboriginal identity is built into case planning. A new practice framework, planning guide and planning template, supported by a rollout of training has been successfully trialled with social workers in regional areas.

Fiona Ward, Director Country, explained to me how Families SA will continue to direct all resources possible into building relationships with Aboriginal communities. She said that recognition of cultural issues is also fundamentally important for Families SA when addressing housing, health and education issues in partnership with Aboriginal communities and key to providing safe and healthy environments for Aboriginal children.

Prevention services like those provided under the Stronger Families, Safer Children  program are vital to bring about the required changes.

Paying attention to mental health



Pam Simmons Guardian

Most children and young people who come into care need assistance in achieving or sustaining mental health. This is hardly surprising given the high likelihood of early childhood trauma. The level of need and assistance required will vary but the key to successful intervention is timeliness and appropriateness to need.


We have become so used to rationing health resources that this sounds like a big ask. However, I have learnt from my conversations with experts that most of the healing work is done by the adults who spend the most time with children, such as carers, teachers and family. Regardless of who delivers the assistance, sound professional advice and timely intervention is needed.

In South Australia, we have good cooperation between Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), Child Protection Services, the Youth Sexual Assault/Abuse Counselling Service and Families SA Psychological Services in providing therapeutic services for children in care. Since 2005 there have been improvements in timeliness and appropriateness as a result of the extra services under the Keeping Them Safe reform program and the Rapid Response commitment by government agencies. Assessments are now conducted within two to three weeks of a referral.

Late last year, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists adopted a position statement on the mental health care needs of children in out-of-home care. Among other things, the statement commits them to work collaboratively with state health departments and child welfare agencies to ensure all children in care are assessed.

It seems to me though that assessment is the easier bit to fix. The persistent gaps are with the follow-up services. Here, too, there have been steps forward and health services in general have been terrific in giving priority to children in care. However, I am hearing that children are waiting too long and that good alternative care arrangements are sometimes threatened by delays in getting professional advice and help. So in an attempt to understand better I asked what the most significant gaps are.

A delay of three or four months for a child who has been assessed as in high need of therapeutic assistance has an immediate adverse impact on their stability in placement and in school, and a longer term impact on their emotional and social development. Less often identified but equally important is the delay in working with traumatised infants and their primary carers. A child or adolescent’s distress and associated destructive behaviour often triggers the referral to therapeutic services. Much of this could be avoided if early work is done with infants and carers.

Other priorities for action were the development of more appropriate models for working with Aboriginal children and families, prompt professional assistance to carers when acute problems arise, specialist assistance to children and young people with very high need, and services for young people once they reach 18 years but are not accepted for adult mental health services. The good news is that those I spoke to were not short of ideas for tackling these problems.

The first gap that came to light did not, however, concern only children in care. Instead it was the torment of removing children from parents with mental illness. In 2007 a coalition of mental health and child advocates estimated that between 78,000 and 85,000 young South Australians live with a parent with a mental illness. Most continue to live as a family and the impact on children depends on the severity of the illness and access to support. The statutory child protection system cuts in only at the most serious end of disruption and isolation of children. Forty per cent of children taken into state care have mental illness of one or both parents as a major contributing factor. In 2007-08 this would have been about 180 children. South Australia needs to catch up with the other states and territories in implementing a strategy to assist children of parents with mental illness.

If we are serious about providing good care and education for children and young people, prevention of illness, good early childhood development, crime prevention, and strong families we will pay more attention now to the mental health care needs of children.

Let’s exhaust alternatives to jail for young people



Pam Simmons Guardian

With news reports of youth gangs and Operation Mandrake you could be forgiven for thinking that youth crime is on the increase. It is not. The trend is downwards. Over a ten year period to 2005 the fall in police apprehensions was 39 per cent. You could be forgiven for believing that young people who commit offences will do so again. Most do not.The implications are clear. Instead of addressing the problems some groups of young people face we would be adding to them by bringing them into the youth justice system for first and minor offences.


Most young people in South Australia are never in trouble with the police. In 2005, only 0.5 per cent of young people aged 10 to 17 years were apprehended by police. More than half of these did not warrant a court appearance.

For the most part, we have long accepted that we would treat young people as a special category when it comes to criminal justice in recognition of their underdeveloped moral reasoning.

Indeed it was South Australia that led the way in this country with the Children’s Act aged 10 to 13 are presumed to not be fully capable of understanding their actions unless a court can prove otherwise.

There is growing evidence that delays in moral reasoning will continue in to your early 20s and some jurisdictions have extended the principle of different treatment accordingly.

In SA there is a separate Court. The steadily falling youth crime rate is testament to a mostly good youth justice system.

That is why the recent proposals to change legislation so that young offenders are treated more harshly, including defining the offences when juveniles will face the adult court system, are so worrying. They are abrupt reactions to problems that have been with us for a long time and which, largely, we have handled sensibly.

We do well at steering first time offenders away from their second or third offence with crime prevention strategies, and cautions or family conferences following police apprehension. What we don’t want to do now is to counteract this success by widening the channel into the criminal justice system. Introducing anti-social behaviour orders, public shaming and mandatory sentencing could do just that.

Give someone a label, especially a young person, and they will live up to it. Becoming known in the neighbourhood as an “offender” or a “hoon” sticks hard and fast.

In the UK having an “Asbo” or anti-social behaviour order has become something of a badge of honour. Almost half the Asbos in the UK are breached at least once. A highly disproportionate number are imposed on black or Asian young people and the BritishInstitute for Brain Injured Children reported that 35 per cent of the orders were imposed on young people with a disability such as Tourette syndrome, autism or Aspergers syndrome.

The more vexing problem is how to stop that small minority, around 8 per cent, who persist in offending. Out of anger, it is tempting to punish and punish again. If your goal is to stop further crime however then brutalising young offenders, or any offenders, will defeat this.

Most repeat offenders are familiar with brutal environments and have experienced rejection, isolation, failure and cruelty most of their lives. Imprisonment can be a badge of honour, too, among some groups.

As many as 60 per cent of incarcerated young people are reported to be at risk of significant mental health problems.

There is little sympathy for young people who commit crime but it is not sympathy they need. We could instead offer, as other states and countries do, medium or low security facilities that focus on re-integration to the community rather than punishment.

We could ensure that our programs in detention centres deal with substance use, mental illness, post-abuse trauma and learning difficulties. We could introduce sentencing conferences that bring the young person’s family and community into the decisions about consequences and addressing causes of re-offending.

There are many effective alternatives to ongoing imprisonment. If we had tried these first, the call for longer imprisonment may be acceptable.

We have not and it is not.

Pam Simmons


(First published in The Advertiser 23 March 2007.)

The Guardian’s field consultation in 2008

picture of Guardian Pam Simmons

Pam Simmons Guardian

I travel the state between September and December each year to ask agencies and workers how well the care system is working for children and young people. The information I collect is the basis of further discussions with key agencies and a report to the Minister. My thanks to the 295 people I met at 27 locations for their participation.

Below is a summary of what I heard.

Stability and security

The consultation indicates that the majority of children are in stable and secure placements but for the estimated one in ten requiring change, the options are few. Demand for emergency placements has substantially increased. There are reported improvements in the quality of care provided by commercial carers and residential care workers in transitional accommodation. The over-crowding in Families SA residential facilities and the consequent risk to residents is of deep concern. See Centres a risk to child safety.

The relationships between carers, social workers and alternative care support workers are generally good. The support to relative carers has improved as has their access to respite services, though the demand for respite still outstrips provision. Specialist training for carers in country areas is sparse.

Family contact and cultural identity

There is reported high compliance with parental contact requirements. There is some concern about whether this meets the needs of children. Reunification services should be readily available to young people who choose to return to families after long separation under state guardianship. Getting a mentor appears to be inconsistent. There is tension and hesitancy about how well knowledge of cultural identity is supported and some concern about delays in placing Aboriginal children with family. There are emerging child protection problems, including adolescents at risk, in refugee communities.

Health and disability services

The benefits of the Rapid Response commitment are still evident in cooperation between agencies, familiarity with the needs of children in state care and improved access to services. Waiting times for therapeutic assistance are growing again and are up to six months in some regions for high-priority referrals. Access to disability services has improved markedly overall although there are persistent issues for young people making the transition to adult disability services.

Education and development

Consistent with the 2007 consultation, participants reported mostly good communication between schools and Families SA, largely attributed to the introduction of Individual Education Plans. There is some indication, though, that momentum had slowed which has already been addressed by DECS and Families SA with refresher training offered. Predictably but regretfully the cooperation comes unstuck over payments to support children who need additional assistance in school. As a result children are disadvantaged by delays in school commencement or fulltime attendance. There was relief that the school retention program will continue in Families SA and that DECS continues to give priority to children and young people under guardianship.


Families SA workers reported satisfaction with the level of participation of children and young people in decision-making. However other evidence demonstrates there is much more that could be done to involve and empower children and young people in case decisions.

Relationship with case worker

There are reported improvements in case worker responsiveness, professionalism, consistency and communication from 2007. However there are a growing number of ‘unallocated’ cases where contact is minimal.


The overall impression is that, despite high demand, workers across agencies are focused on the children for whom they have a duty of care or guardianship. The growing sense of order and professionalism in Families SA continues, as does enhanced inter-agency work. While there is still much progress to be made in realising the benefits for children in respectful ‘care teams’ there are improvements in the day to day interaction between carers, social workers and carer support workers. Services and accommodation for children with high needs and stable placements for 12 to 15 year olds emerged as two significant issues. There was also a rising sense of indignation that collectively the state could not provide what children are entitled to.

What makes a good foster carer

In previous editions the Youth Advisors have had their say on what makes a good social worker and now they turn their attention to foster carers.

The Youth Advisors were asked by Families SA for their opinions as part of the Review of Foster Care Assessment and Training late in 2008 and this is some of what they wrote.

They told Families SA that children or young people in care want stability and security through consistent care and a daily routine. They wanted to be listened to sympathetically and involved in decision making…

…carers should know about the importance of involving children and young people in decision-making about their lives.

…but not always involved in all of the detail.

There’s some things that a child doesn’t need to be involved in, for example an argument between a social worker and carer about clothing allowance or arguments between lawyers.

Practical stuff was important like access to medical care – but also fun.

Some foster parents include you in all their family stuff, especially the fun stuff, but some foster parents don’t. Young people in care, they said, need to feel that it’s not being done just for the money.

Carers, the Youth Advisors thought, needed to have a knowledge of child development and safe caring practices and to understand trauma, attachment and mental health issues that might arise for young people in care. They needed to know how to support and maintain cultural ties.

A carer should be prepared to learn about the child’s culture in order to support that child’s connection with their culture and heritage.

Family based carers should be happy and stable and welcome the child into their home.

The focus for someone considering becoming a carer should be on wanting to provide a home and a heart for a child who can’t live with their family.

They should have good parenting skills, including being compassionate and being focussed on the child, and be willing to help children with their education and life skills.

A carer should enable the child or young person to continue with activities that they were doing before coming into care that were positive and contribute to their development, for example, family birthday and cultural celebrations.

The Youth Advisor’s input was presented to the reference group on family based care by Families SA Principal Social Worker Alisa Marshall who relayed back the reference group’s thanks for ‘an extremely valuable contribution’.

The Charter of Rights turns three in 2009

The Charter of Rights for Children and Young People in Care grew out of consultation with children and young people, carers, social workers and people from government and non-government organisations. The final look of the printed materials drew heavily on the advice of an advisory group of young people who were either in care or who had been in care.

It was officially launched by the then Minister for Families and Communities, Jay Weatherill in a celebration at the Adelaide Zoo on 19 April 2006.

Since then, 42 agencies have endorsed the Charter, committing to apply it in their policy and day-to-day practice. The agencies who have endorsed are diverse including both government and non-government organisations providing a wide range of support in alternative care, youth, aboriginal, disability, education and health services.

The Charter remains central to the Office’s goal of making it work for kids in care. The strategies for implementing and evaluating the impact of the Charter are clearly set out in our Strategic Plan 2007 – 2010.

In 2009 we will be:

  • contacting or renewing contact with the Charter champion in each endorsing agency
  • actively assisting agencies to implement and embed the Charter into their everyday business
  • helping agencies to assess and document how well they are progressing in implementing the Charter and promoting the rights of children and young people in care
  • getting feedback from agencies about their successes and difficulties in implementing the Charter and identifying the way forward
  • hosting a forum focussing on an issue relating to children’s rights
  • making available tools and practical resources to support and promote implementation of the Charter
  • publishing articles on the Charter and children’s rights in our quarterly newsletter.

Resources already in place include posters and brochures explaining and promoting the Charter for children and young people, their carers and to others who work directly with them. The posters and brochures are available in two different styles. The Office also makes available frequently asked questions about the Charter and a series of checklists that endorsing agencies can use and customise to meet their own circumstances on the Charter of Rights page of the Guardian’s website.

To read more about the Charter visit the Guardian’s Charter of Rights page.

If you would like to discuss ways to use and promote the Charter within your agency, please email Nicole [email protected] or phone (08) 8226 8429.

What works best in residential care?

At 30 June 2008, 166 children, or 7.6 per cent, of all children on care and protection orders were in residential care in South Australia. Residential care is where a small group of residents live in a communal setting staffed by paid residential care workers.

The Guardian’s Office in December 2008 wrote a literature review about what works in residential care which was published on the Guardian’s website as What works best in residential care and which can be located in the search panel on the right.

The review revealed that residential care works best when it is seen as a positive choice, an option that offers high quality care that meets residents’ individual needs and as a valuable component of an integrated alternative care system. The purpose of residential care and its place in the broader care and protection system should be clear, understood and supported by all.

The quality of the environment was a key factor. The facility should demonstrate and be proud of providing high quality care and care in which the children are actively involved. Children and young people say that they value having ‘a say about how [a] house is run’ and ‘working together’ with workers who are ‘nice and supportive’.

A residence should be a place where ‘you get love, care and attention’. Residents and staff should feel good about their physical environment. Children and young people say that the best residential care occurs when the environment ‘is like your own home’. Like any home environment, relationships are critical. Children and young people want a place where ‘it is nice and you feel safe’ and where ‘everybody trusts each other’.

Residential care works best when services are provided that are relevant, accessible and tailored to each resident, rather than residents being fitted into the available services. Reporting on a positive experience, one resident says, ‘everyone is an individual really, and they treat us all individual.’

A good residential care facility should encourage and support the child’s education. One resident notes, ‘the best thing is that I can have help on planning my future.’ Another sees ‘the respect that I am given and the help’ as positive elements of residential care.

Finally, residential care works best when it works with communities and families. It should provide a place where residents are assisted to take their place in the broader community. Children and young people say that residential care should offer both ‘support and independence’ and facilitate ‘trust and freedom’. Residents value ‘being close to family and friends’ as well as opportunities for ‘making other friends’.

Comics by and for young people in care

comic 1 coverWhen Our Place and Tyson and Lucy, the two comics for young people in care, went into circulation in January this year it was the culmination of an idea that started almost three years ago.

In 2006 a reference group of young people in care compiled a list of materials that would be useful to children and young people in care including the Being in Care booklet, backpacks, contact cards, Oog key rings and rub-on tattoos, the Oog soft toy and, most ambitious, a comic.

Richard Dall, artist for the comic project, was immediately impressed by the input from the reference group of young people in care who came together to guide the development of the comic.

comic 2 cover‘We knew from the start that it would be important to involve the kids but it was only when we had our first meeting that I realised just how much we would rely on them for the stories and the issues.

‘You start out thinking in terms of your own childhood but when the reference group shared their stories you realise that their experiences of growing up were different in profound ways.’

The project started in mid-2007 with the idea of producing a single comic until things changed, as writer for the project Daniel Watson recalls.

‘We were pretty far down the track with one comic, checking to make sure we had got the language and the tone just right, when some frank feedback by a young man in care caused a major change of direction. With his comments we realised that we would need two comics to capture the range of experiences of kids in care.’

The Office revisited the project and the second comic was born.

Guardian Pam Simmons is grateful to the creative team and the adults who advised the Office and organised and supported the young people to participate and adds high praise to the young people themselves.

‘Their insights and the stories of difficulty and success which they shared so freely with us are the heart of the comics. The success of the comics is their success.’

You can order copies at the Requesting materials page of the website.

Statistics about children in care – December 2008

Statistics about children and young people in care and those in secure detention*

At 31 December 2008, 2,030 children and young people were in the care and guardianship of the Minister for Families and Communities under 12 month or guardianship to 18 years orders.  An additional 27 were on Investigaton and Assessment Orders.  They had the following characteristics:

Type of guardianship (of those on 18 year and 12 month orders)

  • Order to 18 years – 81.4%
  • 12 month Order – 18.6%

Ages (of those on 18 year and 12 month orders)

  • 0 to 1 – 6.7%
  • 2 to 4 – 15.8%
  • 5 to 9 – 29.5%
  • 10 to 14 – 29.7%
  • 15 to 17 – 18.3%

Gender (of those on 18 year and 12 month orders)

  • Male – 51.7%
  • Female – 48.1%
  • Undetermined – 0.2%

Aboriginality (of those on 18 year and 12 month orders)

  • Indigenous – 23.9%
  • Non-Indigenous – 75.2%
  • Undetermined – 0.9 %


At the end of 2008 there were a total of 244 children under guardianship receiving a service from Disability SA and Novita, 12 per cent of the total. (Disability SA)
At Term 1 2007, of the 993 children in care located in the DECS enrolment system, 39 per cent were classified as having a disability.  Their primary disabilities were language and communication (26.6 per cent), intellectual (9.8 percent), physical (1.6 per cent) and sensory – hearing or vision – (1.0 per cent ).  (Department for Education and Children’s Services)

Accommodation arrangements

Of the 1,886 children and young people in alternative care at 31 December 2008, the care arrangements were as follows:

  • Foster care – 49.4%
  • Relative and kinship care – 37.1%
  • Financially assisted adoption – 0.2%
  • Families SA residential care – 5.1%
  • NGO residential care – 2.0%
  • Emergency and short term accommodation – 6.4%

Placement stability

In their passage through the care system, children will generally change placement a number of times.  Of the 1,886 children and young people in alternative care at 31 December 2008, their experiences were:

  • First placement – 4.1%
  • One – 16.4%
  • Two to five – 42.3%
  • Six to ten – 20.3%
  • More than ten – 16.9%

The number of children and young people in the care of the Minister has grown steadily from 1,441 in June 2005 to 2,030 in December 2008.

Secure detention

Children and young people in secure detention in South Australia are housed in either the Magill or Cavan Centres.

In 2007-08 there were 1,030 admissions to secure care representing 525 individual young people and the average daily occupancy of the two secure training centres was 71.95.

For more information contact us at [email protected] or 08 8226 8570.

*The statistics on this page are mainly drawn from Families SA figures on children and young people under the guardianship of the Minister and Australian Insitute of Health and Welfare data on children and young people in alternative care.  Those under guardianship and those under alternative care are overlapping populations; that is most,but not all, children in alternative care are on a custody or guardianship order, and similarly, most, but not all, children under the guardianship of the Minister are in alternative care.  However, the numbers of these two populations are different, and exact comparisons should not be made.